The Mendicant Writer explores two divergent communities through the lives of five remarkable characters. In this first instalment he meets Norrie the Fisherman.
Mendicant writer, Cosimo Galbraith, lives in Edinburgh but day-dreams of the Scottish Highlands. In this series he explores two fascinating but divergent contemporary communities, by profiling five remarkable characters who all have something distinctive to say about the place where they live.
A tale of two communities
At a first glance, the two settings featured in these articles are starkly different. The first is a cluster of beautiful, isolated villages, scattered along the West Coast of Scotland, where erratic weather, power-cuts, fallen-trees and wandering live-stock frequently punctuate life with delightful uncertainty.
Stockbridge, on the other hand, is a fashionably frayed and moderately desirable area ofEdinburgh’s New Town, famous for charity shops and café culture. By day, Stockbridge attracts a cluster of writers, artists and genuine Bohemians (and a good number of aspiring ones, too). At night, gaggles of smart-phone wielding young-professionals prowl the cobbles. They gather in transient wine-bars with Continental-sounding-names which read like poorly posed rhetorical questions.
I began writing this series of articles for Elderjuice at a time when ‘community’ (or perhaps the absence of a community) was the subject of much discussion in the media. Though I was living more or less permanently in The Highlands, with only limited access to dial-up internet, I followed the debate about The Big Society, closely, because the idea intrigued me.
As you may remember, The Big Society became the subject of endless posturing and wittering, and caused much contrariness and partisan tit-for-tat amongst politicians. Journalists and bloggers swung their hand-bags; Twitter crackled with the snarky comments of a generation of voters who felt duped and disillusioned by the political establishment.
Considered by the Left (and left-leaning) to be a right wing fantasy, for many (including myself) The Big Society was all fallacy and waffle. It was a platitude and a sound-bite, with all the substance (and grandiosity) of Mr J Gatsby.
I felt, and still feel disdainful about The Big Society. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a device. It is friendly, flowery and immaculately worded, but a device, nonetheless, and one which will be used to facilitate and justify all manner of future cruelties. This said, I found the initiative fascinating, because the idea ignited surprisingly strong feelings in people.
The Big Society led to valuable, wholesale discussion of what was wrong with community, how it had become wrong and the best way to right it. These were the questions which I asked my contributors, and these pieces are the curious results of our discussions.
Norrie the Fisherman
On my way to meet Norrie, my first contributor, the weather was abysmal. My wellies squelched and my car spluttered in a tired, forlorn way, as I negotiated single-track roads which resembled murky ponds.
In hindsight, this all seems peculiarly fitting. In fact, it was as though the whole thing had been ordained byNeptune. It would have been incongruous, even inappropriate to meet Norrie the Fisherman in sunny weather, as he is a man who practically embodies The West Highland Storm.
Norrie’s home is at the end of a terrace, in one of the small, peculiar housing estates built by Highland Council in the 1960’s. The pebble-dashed concrete was thick with moss, and the cracked, squat houses were clouded with smoke and midges, when I arrived more than twenty minutes late. Norrie’s directions had been contradictory and difficult to follow. He had sounded distracted and I wondered whether he had been drinking (in fact, Norrie had been moving a settee with his son).
Norrie’s house is a shrine to the overwhelmingly romantic practise of creel fishing; a botched-together, gaffer-taped, falling-to-bits sort of industry, which still exists, with some difficulty, in parts of the Scottish Highlands. Norrie cited his love for the sea and ‘hereditary stubbornness’ as his primary reasons for continuing to fish, despite drastically dwindling returns. Sometimes, he said he wondered why he hadn’t given up a long time ago.
We talked in Norrie’s garden, a muddy, gravelly place, littered with various types of fluorescent twine, thick plastic needles used to mend creels and the rusting components of dismembered boats.
Community, Norrie said, wasn’t a clean cut thing anymore. In his lifetime, things had changed drastically. Once generations of certain families had predominated a village, creating a sort of artificial environment where everyone knew one another; now a hotchpotch of different characters lived in close, but near anonymous proximity.
As Norrie explained, nowhere existed where locals could mix; either inadvertently or deliberately. When the village shop was open, people who wouldn’t ordinarily have conversations bumped into one-another; the local pub had also been wonderful device for fusing together different personalities.
Both places had also allowed people in transit to exchange news of what was happening in the next village; sadly, both pub and shop had closed due to a lack of trade. For these reasons, Norrie suspected that community spirit could only be reignited by jobs and money.
The giddying scent of fibre-glass and two-stroke oil filled the evening air, mingling with the smell of the more culinary experiments which Norrie conducted in his stifling kitchen. We talked about local goings-on. Norrie told me about all the people I had known as a child and what they were doing now. I felt overwhelmed by confusion and nostalgia. The place was peaceful and still.
I felt sad to leave Norrie. I suppose I realised that I had become detached from my own community; but I also felt strangely excited by the prospect of reacquainting myself with my charming, funny, devil-may-care neighbours, in a project which I already knew would have no obvious or easy outcome.